Review of Unraveled

Unraveled by Lauren Dane. Harlequin Books. 2018.

3.25 stars

whiskey sharpI wanted to read this book because Lauren Dane’s contemporary romances are basically an insta-read for me, and I have reread most of them multiple times. She generally writes strong unabashedly sexual heroines, wonderful friendship groups/family/chosen family, complex heroes, and has a lovely way with light D/s. Her heroines (and sometimes her heroes) often have trauma histories, which are part of the story but not central in it, and generally woven into the story in ways that feel respectful and complex, without handwaving them away.

This book hits many of those marks, and for the first third of the story, I reveled in the familiarity of Dane’s style and worldbuilding and the way she sets up stories and draws character. This book has a couple references to characters from other books, which made me grin. That kind of thing is part of what I enjoy about reading so much of an author’s work.

The hero’s family is just wonderful and complex and was one of my favorite things about this book. The heroine is very strong and unabashedly sexual and also has these hints of vulnerability that were lovely. I adored her so much. This book also shines in its depiction of the workplace setting for the romance, I loved the way the barber shop was described, the slow burn of their connection at work, and the moment when they decide to really go for each other. I also loved how much of the romance happened at work, the ways we saw their connection grow in that setting.

The heroine is a trauma survivor, and is currently being harmed by her abusive parents. This isn’t only abuse in the past, its also very present tense, and that shifts how the story feels. It doesn’t feel like a hopeful narrative about a survivor reclaiming her life and finding love and support, it feels like a character who is abused all throughout the story and barely chooses to take steps to protect herself til the very end. The support of the hero, her workplace, the family that adopted her as a kid and that adopted her as an adult, none of that feels nearly as hopeful, because its part of a life where she is still being harmed. It makes this a very different kind of narrative than the others I’ve read by this author. A darker, less hopeful narrative, one that feels very weighed down by the abuse.

I wanted to root for them as a couple, as I do think they are good for each other and I did enjoy some of those moments in the story. I had a hard time because with how dark the story felt, because of the continuing abuse, and how it was a shadow over the story for almost all of it. It made it more a painful read than an enjoyable one. I did really like the ways that the heroine is shown grappling with whether certain aspects of the hero were signs that he might be like her abuser. That felt like such a real and important aspect of romance for a survivor, one that resonated a lot for me.

This was exacerbated by the ending. In other work by this author, whatever present day threat that existed related to the trauma gets resolved to a place where as a reader it feels like the heroine is safe. This book does not do that. It ends with (spoiler, so I am putting in white text, highlight to read) a clear imminent threat to the heroine that is not yet addressed. And not just to her, but to her sister as well. (Who is the heroine of book 2.) This ending, and how fast the story resolves after a confrontation with the abuser, left me feeling very unsettled as a reader, moreso than with a usual cliffhanger. I am supposed to be happy for the couple together, but instead am just worried about the heroine & her sister.

The sex scenes felt less joyous and held less heat for me than some of Dane’s other work, though the chemistry between the MCs was really glorious. I think they may have been overshadowed by the darkness in the story. I was still reeling from the big conflict near the end, and the last sex scene felt off for me as I was reeling.

I was troubled by the way the sister was represented. She is a survivor of intense trauma, one that changed the direction of her life, and she clearly has PTSD and there are vague references to mobility issues as a result. She is frequently framed as disabled and needing support, and often as someone who needs protection and cannot make independent choices. This is challenged somewhat, but even though the heroine recognizes the importance of her independence, she also struggles to support it and often wants to make choices for her and act as a shield for her, and put her needs first. This kind of dynamic is loaded because she’s disabled, in a way that it might not be otherwise, and it made me uncomfortable to read, as a disabled person with PTSD. This book is a lot about protection, and recognizing the need to step back and let people make their own choices, even if you want to shield them, but this theme feels a bit underdeveloped in this particular relationship. (It is better developed in the romance arc.) I am glad to know that the sister gets her own book, Jagged, and from the blurb on the author’s website, that book is a lot about her insisting on independence.

This is a bit of a departure from what I’ve come to expect in Dane’s contemporary work, particularly in the level of darkness of the story, and the ending, and for me as a reader, the book suffered some for it. It may partly be due to my knowing her contemporary backlist so well; for a reader coming in prepared or without expectations, it may work quite well.

Representation

  • Trauma survivor heroine
  • Immigrant hero (from Russia)
  • Secondary character who has a mobility disability and PTSD
  • Gay secondary characters

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

References to kidnapping and torture in the past. Detailed description of an incident of child sexual abuse in the past, with the child getting blamed for the abuse by her parents. Many detailed descriptions of child abuse, especially emotional abuse, but physical abuse and neglect as well. Many detailed descriptions of stalking, threats, menacing, controlling behavior and emotional abuse of adult child by parent, including use of misogynist and whorephobic slurs. A secondary disabled character is frequently treated by family members as helpless, needing protection, and as someone who doesn’t get to make her own choices for herself; this is challenged somewhat by her and other characters in the book, including the heroine. The book ends with an imminent threat to the heroine and to this characters independence, and a plan but no action taken to secure either of them from that threat.

Disclosures

  • Source of the book: ARC from the publisher via Netgalley
  • I have had no contact with the author.

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